“Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. ‘Look,’ he said to his people, ‘the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.’ So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh.” (Exodus 1:8-11)
Dr. Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon from Detroit hoping to win the Republican nomination for the 2016 presidential election, raised quite a few eyebrows recently when he theorized that the Egyptian pyramids were built by the Biblical character Joseph for the purpose of storing grain. This idea contradicts the classical archaeological theory that the pyramids were built as vast and elaborate burial chambers for Egyptian royalty.
The recent controversy is actually a rehashing of remarks Carson made at a college commencement speech 17 years ago at the Seventh Day Adventist-affiliated Andrews University. After Buzzfeed.com posted about it, the story quickly made the rounds on the internet. In the speech, Carson said, “When you look at the way that the pyramids are made, with many chambers that are hermetically sealed, they’d have to be that way for various reasons”.
Egypt’s antiquities minister Mamdouh el-Damaty told the media that Carson’s view on the subject was not even worthy of a response. Mahmoud Afifi, the head of the Ancient Egyptian Antiquities Sector at the Antiquities Ministry did, however, respond.
“A lot of people are trying to prove that the pyramids weren’t built for burials,” said Afifi. “Maybe they’re comments used for publicity like that man who’s not an archaeologist and says they stored grain, and I don’t know what that was based on.”
Carson stood by his statement in the face of the expert opinions quoted in the media.
“Some people believe in the Bible, like I do, and don’t find that to be silly at all, and believe that God created the Earth, and don’t find that silly at all. Secular progressives try to ridicule that whenever it comes up, and they’re welcome to do that,” Carson said in an interview aired on CNN.
Dr. Carson has many controversial views of his own, but he did not invent this theory. The belief that Joseph built the pyramids to store grain was popular in Medieval Europe and is found in sources written as early as the 6th century. A depiction of the pyramids as granaries can be found in a 12th century mosaic in St Mark’s Basilica in Venice.
The Bible, however, does not precisely support Dr. Carson’s theory. According to Biblical accounts, Joseph, as the Pharaoh’s advisor, is indeed responsible for storing grain against seven years of famine, but nowhere is it specified that the grain was stored in pyramids. In a separate account of times after the death of Joseph, the Bible relates that the Egyptians set the Hebrews to building the storage cities of Pitom and Ramses as a form of affliction (Exodus 1:11). The first-century Roman-Jewish historian Josephus Flavius expressed the opinion that the Hebrews did build the pyramids, but he did not claim they were for the purpose of storing grain.
Carson has already been at the center of several controversies revolving around religious issues. Baptized as a Seventh Day Adventist, he is a vegetarian for religious reasons. He has said that religion is very much a part of his politics, and he is vocally anti-abortion. In a 2006 debate, he stated that he does not believe in evolution, and has reiterated that belief on several occasions, also calling the big-bang theory of the beginning of the universe a “fairy-tale”.